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They're looking up to you
On kindergarten buddies, bad behavior on the sidelines, and the need to shame those who don't grow up
In no small number of schools, older students are paired up with younger ones in programs with names like "Kindergarten Buddies". The age-gapped students spend time together doing activities like reading or performing small projects. Sure, the interaction teaches kindergarteners by giving them older models to emulate. But the secret is that it's really there for the older kids.
■ Kindergarteners will happily learn from just about anyone -- they're wired with a magnificent and overwhelming sense of wonder and curiosity. But it doesn't always occur naturally for older kids to realize that they're being watched. Raising the stakes just a little, by telling them that their "buddies" are looking to them for guidance and instruction, helps them learn the intrinsic reward of having others look up to them.
■ To find themselves admired compels most self-aware people to think about behaving in admirable ways. It doesn't always work, of course, but it's often more powerful than the threat of punishment. "Be on your best behavior; the kindergarteners are looking up to you" is often a more stimulating piece of advice than "Don't cause trouble or you'll be sent to the principal's office." Or, as the philosopher Maimonides put it, "[I]f you suppose a human individual is alone, acting on no one, you will find that all his moral virtues are in vain and without employment and unneeded, and that they do not perfect the individual in anything; for he only needs them and they again become useful to him in regard to someone else."
■ It's hard not to notice the presence of altogether too many people in both public and private life who didn't get the message about being good "buddies" to their juniors. News and culture are all too often packed with examples of people modeling immature behavior long past an appropriate age. 40-year-olds should never be committing violent incidents of road rage. 60-year-olds shouldn't have to be told to keep their hands off umpires and referees. 80-year-olds shouldn't have to be told to keep their weapons away from the United States Capitol.
■ With advancing age should come increasing temperance. If you've lived long enough to "see a few things", then you've earned the responsibility to behave as though you know that the new things you encounter belong in proper perspective. And if we don't share a common expectation that humility and moderation are exactly the kinds of virtues that older people ought to model for younger ones -- if instead we tolerate people acting out well past a tolerable age, either because they never learned to manage and contain their own emotions or because they refuse to model the habits of wisdom -- then society is hobbling itself in ways we can't easily calculate.
■ It's a special job to be the senior partner in a relationship where modeling good behavior for the young to emulate is an intrinsic aspect of the role. Lots of kids understand that implicitly in elementary school. More adults ought to do the same, and the rest of us should cast shame on those who don’t.